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April 18, 2014

Column: 'Summer' starts now

Twenty-seven days.

That's the amount of time Penn State's new coaching staff was able to work with its players this spring, per NCAA rules, with only 15 practices interspersed.

No doubt, needing to lay the groundwork for the players - beyond the intensive recruiting and public relations blitz already establishing the new tenor of the program through the winter months - Penn State's coaches knew exactly how critical each day of instruction would be to the team's future success. The subsequent teaching and learning was about far more than when the team reconvenes for preseason camp in August, though.

While Easter weekend and the end of spring practice offers many players an opportunity to get away from the grind momentarily, the reality is that roughly 100 days - more than three times that of spring practice - remain between now and the re-engagement between the Nittany Lions and their coaching staff.

In other words, it's personal responsibility 'go time.'

It should come as no surprise, then, that the team continued its strength and conditioning work this week after concluding spring practice with the Blue-White Game last Saturday.

For Penn State's coaching staff, having spent some of that crucial time this spring giving the Nittany Lions the tools necessary to keep making strides this summer, it now has no choice but to have faith that the message resonated.

"You constantly want to be teaching," said offensive coordinator John Donovan. "Everyone is dealing with the same thing. It's just the way it goes."

"Any time you have to get bigger, faster, stronger (is good). You just want them to be able to keep doing the Xs and Os part of it in terms of learning."

As many of the Nittany Lions revealed this spring, those Xs and Os and, more specifically, the terminology attached, were among the main priorities taught.

Combining the opportunities for individual physical strides provided by winter workouts and the implementation of concepts and terminology installed this spring, the Nittany Lions understand what is expected of them through the summer.

"We all know what we have to get better, but in the summer we basically take over what we've learned in spring ball from our new coaches. We'll take it to the summer, plus add a little extra stuff," said Anthony Zettel. "Basically, we all have our own goals and what each player needs to improve on - balance or speed or explosiveness - so basically we know what we have to do individually to get better, but we're still going to as a group practice a lot to get better as a group on stunts and stuff."

For the players themselves, the odds of that success increase in direct correlation to the leadership that emerges within the team as a whole, but also each position group.

From the work of Christian Hackenberg and the other quarterbacks with the skill position players, the 7-on-7 opportunities for the linebackers and secondary, and the offensive and defensive linemen, as emerging wideout Geno Lewis explained, everyone needs to be on board.

"We need everybody to be on the same page. Like I said, we're young but we're very talented. It's basically, everybody has to help everybody," he said. "Just because I'm a guy coming up from last year doesn't mean I can't learn anything from DaeSean (Hamilton) or Richy (Anderson). They might do some things that I've never seen before.

"We all just want to help each other and know different things that can happen during the game and different situations. We all just gotta be on the same page and just help each other out."

Between the intense supervised strength and conditioning, the basic bonding that comes as a result of remaining in a soon-to-be vacant State College, and the continuing film study and on-field teaching the players themselves will be responsible for, there are no shortages of areas to significantly improve through the next three months.

Without question, for a team still proudly wearing its underdog label, the players know it.

"It's very important," said redshirt junior tackle Donovan Smith. "While the coaches are gone, it allows us to hang out more. We go through the fire together in terms of summer conditioning and working out and stuff like that. It tightens us up. And, in the film room, We watch a lot of film and correct each other, our prior mistakes and stuff like that, and just build from it."

With spring practice in the books, now's their chance.


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